About algebra

Do you know any Persian polymaths? No we didn’t either… in fact on reflection we struggled to correctly define a polymath (she or he is a person of wide knowledge or learning) We certainly didn’t know any Persian ones… it wasn’t that important, it was a clue in a crossword puzzle ‘Persian polymath who wrote ‘The Book of Healing’ and ‘The Canon of Medicine”.  A _ I_ _ _ N _ ….  No, we didn’t know and we had to cheat and look up the answer – Avicenna.

Avicenna was the Latinised name of Ibn Sīnā, ابن سینا‎ who was born in about 980 and died in June 1037. Wikipedia describes him as ’one of the most significant physicians, astronomers, thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age… the father of early modern medicine’. He wrote four hundred and fifty ‘books’and amazingly two hundred and forty of them are still in existence. He wrote about philosophy and medicine, but also astronomy, alchemy, geography and geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, mathematics, physics, and poetry – a polymath indeed.

This got us thinking about algebra, because when we were at school Maths was divided into arithmetic, geometry and algebra – and then there was something called trigonometry which I didn’t really grasp, it was a bit of a mystery to me. In junior schools in those days, arithmetic was pretty much drummed into you – times tables, mental arithmetic with no working out on paper, we were pretty rigorously drilled in it so even today I’m quite good at working out what you might call ‘sums’. Algebra was more of a mystery especially as our dearl old teacher (our very old teacher) Miss Gurry explained it as ‘a’ being an apple, and ‘c’ being a cat and ‘d’ a dog… and she sort of lost me after that (probably I was wondering what ‘b’ was). We had to learn formulas which I was quite good at, but didn’t really know how to apply what I had learned… and geometry was measuring angles and using theorems… Maybe if I tried again now I might be ok…

So we were thinking about algebra and thought the word probably came from Arabic, maybe al-gebra or al-jebra, something like that and we were right as far as it goes! We looked it up and as I understand it the original phrase or words meant mending something which is broken or balancing something so it becomes equal… or something along those lines. It was used in English in the fourteen hundreds, maybe left over from words picked up by the Crusaders we wondered, or maybe by the Moorish doctors in Spain – but it had the meaning of bone-setting. Since my husband is recovering from a broken bone – his kneecap, it amused me to think algebra was responsible for its mending – algebra which he had found totally baffling at school!

My featured image is of Daniel Rigby in the poster for a brilliant production of Breaking the Code I saw in Manchester. Lots of algebra was involved…

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